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Wanted: band aid for British pop scene: Ahead of the 1993 Brit awards, David Lister asks where our talent has gone

A recent issue of New Musical Express reported a spoof meeting of record company executives deciding the nominations for Tuesday's Brit Awards - the biggest celebration in the pop calendar.

At one point they argue over whether to nominate Tommy Steele or Kate Bush: 'I see we have not given Kate Bush an award for five years. And she is a great lady.' Mildly amusing, but no funnier than the truth. Kate Bush has indeed been nominated as best solo female artist, with no one worrying too much about the small technicality that she did not actually release a record last year.

Nor do the other nominees represent burgeoning new talent. Mick Hucknall of Simply Red has been around for the best part of a decade, but he is a spring chicken compared to fellow contenders Elton John, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, George Michael and Joe Cocker.

So are the record company leaders who made the decisions ageing and out of touch? Or is there a dearth of new talent?

The statistics might indicate that it is the talent not the executives that are failing. Forty per cent of the top 100 singles in 1992 were dance records; 18 were remakes of former hits. The number of successful new songs outside the dance idiom is reckoned to be the lowest ever.

In the UK album market, compilations and film soundtracks accounted for 20 per cent of all sales, an increase of a quarter in the last five years.

Few new British bands made a splash last year. The top three album sellers were Simply Red, Queen and Genesis. Only two new British acts, Right Said Fred and Take That, sold enough albums to make the top 100, and the number of UK acts in the top 100 - 43 - was the lowest for 10 years.

In the singles charts, where the American stars Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson took first and second place above Shakespear's Sister and The Shamen, British acts pipped overseas entrants by 52 to 48. In 1984, before the dance boom made chart fame so transitory, there were 68.

The argument that people are buying indy music, the new-wave breeding ground for talent not distributed by the big record companies, does not hold water either. In 1990, 12 of the 100 best- selling albums came from the independent labels. In 1991, this dropped to six, and in 1992 to two.

And what has happened to Britain the pop exporter? In the United States, only 10 British albums appeared in Billboard's last annual Top 100 list.

The record companies say that UK music buyers are becoming increasingly conservative, choosing compilations by trusted talent as they are bewildered by the proliferation of unmemorable music.

This is sending teenagers to alternative pursuits such as computer games, giving record company executives ulcers and even exercising academics.

Simon Frith, Professor of English at Strathclyde University and a writer on the sociology of pop, points to the social background of the A&R men, the record company 'artists and repertoire' staff who scour the clubs for new talent, watching altogether about 300 gigs a night.

'All A&R people are between their mid-twenties and mid-thirties and were probably entertainments officers at universities,' he says. 'They find it hard to adjust to a different world. Perhaps they don't go round black clubs. It is remarkable that Britain has not produced a generation of young black talent.'

But he says, too, that music does not have the exclusive attention of young people that it did 20 or 30 years ago. 'If you're a clever, artistic 16-year-old, at one stage you would have automatically wanted to be a pop star,' he says. Now they might want to design clothes or be a television producer.'

Geoff Clark-Meades of the British Phonographic Association, which represents nearly all Britain's record companies, said: 'With sales down it is difficult to spend money on taking risks. And the very important pub circuit (where bands such as Dire Straits started) is dying. Brewers are not interested any more.'

Here, perhaps, is a key to the lack of new talent. As Ed Bicknell, manager of Dire Straits, said: 'If I look at the Dire Straits datesheets for 1978 and 1979 it is evenly split between colleges and the pubs and clubs. There are still some clubs, but college and pub gigs have all but disappeared. The artists have priced themselves out of student buying, and the vast majority of colleges have turned to discos or raves.'

The change in the college circuit is evident at Leeds University, put on the international music map when The Who recorded a live album at a concert there more than 20 years ago.

The likelihood of Leeds giving a chance to an unknown band has diminished. Bill Marshall, the university's entertainments manager, said: 'Five years ago students were far more willing to take a punt on a gig. Now they are happier to go to discos unless it's a big name.'

Ed Bicknell added: 'One of the consequences is that artists now play live before large audiences at far too early a stage in their careers.' He is pessimistic about the rock scene. 'When a Beatles or Presley record came out, it was an event. There's nothing like that now. Whether it's the music or a change in society I'm not sure. The big names of today are middle-of-the-road bands: Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner.

'With the exception of hard rock, there's no music now that really captures the imagination of the young. Hard rock bands hardly ever get nominated for awards.'

The nominations for 'best newcomer' category at the Brit Awards speak volumes. Two of the acts, KWS and Undercover, do not have an original hit to their name. They have achieved success with cover versions of past hits by other artists.

(Photograph omitted)